- As She Likes It: Shakespeare’s Unruly Women
In this lucid and wonderfully readable work, Penny Gay provides a materialist feminist account of five Shakespearean comedies performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company between 1946 and 1990. The production histories of Twelfth Night, As You Like It, Taming of the Shrew, Much Ado About Nothing, and Measure for Measure form the basis of her investigation into theatrical reproductions of, as well as challenges to, sexual and political arrangements in Britain since the Second World War. Gay makes two claims: first, that essentialist definitions of comedy fail to address the disruptive potential of actual comic performances; second, that in RSC productions Shakespeare’s comic heroines have not yet been granted the authority and legitimacy they deserve as powerfully dissident voices, articulate agents for social and political change. Using contemporary reviews, promptbooks, and archival footage, as well as interviews with actors and directors, Gay reconstructs forty-five years’ worth of theatrical history from a feminist point of view, foregrounding perspectives and experiences which, she contends, liberal and conservative [End Page 392] productions alike have consistently trivialized, displaced, or occluded.
Gay takes as her point of departure the RSC’s multivalent “performances” of race, class, and gender in the five comedies, arguing that “as the national monument of the national writer” (xi), the RSC functions as an especially sensitive register of shifts in British political institutions and sexual practices since the war. Gay’s richly detailed account of RSC productions suggests that Britons remain, on the whole, more comfortable with the performance of male sexualities (no matter what the erotic object) than with representations of transgressive female desires. Shakespeare’s comedies, she argues, are used either to reaffirm the subordination of women to men in marriage, or to call all social and political institutions into question by focusing obsessively on male greed, corruption, and narcissism. In both cases, productions of the “woman-centred comedies” succeed in displacing women’s perspectives and experiences from center stage, substituting, instead, the culturally-valorized story of men’s desires, failures, and ideals.
Gay’s engagement with the “dialectic of theatre practice and English social and political history” produces a careful assessment of the place of women, actual and imagined, on the national stage; this, in turn, suggests several reasons for the paradoxical marginalization of women in the comedies. Noting the paucity of female directors at Stratford and elsewhere, she argues that actresses face two major obstacles in their efforts to claim theatrical space to tell women’s stories. The first is institutional: actresses’s perspectives tend to be ignored, downplayed or undermined in productions, Juliet Stevenson suggests, because almost all RSC directors, and most of the actors, are men. “Their experience and their world view is going to predominate but their experience does not correspond to your own if you’re a woman” (10). Thus actresses can find themselves constantly playing against their own sense of the character, on the one hand, or inventing ways to subvert the values dominating a given production, on the other. As Gay points out,
The dominance of men in all areas of decision-making at Stratford, while it does no more than echo the general cultural situation, is the principal factor which must be taken into account when considering the women-centred plays of Shakespearean comedy. The actresses who perform these major roles must always feel outnumbered—patronized or disregarded—and respond at some level of their performance to this disempowerment with submission, aggression, defensiveness or irony.
The book offers numerous examples of such responses: Paola Dionisotti eventually agreeing that The Taming of the Shrew belongs to Jonathan Pryce’s Petruchio rather than to her Kate; Sinead Cusack resisting director Terry Hand’s conscription of her as “the feminine” by playing a very angry and defensive Beatrice; Yvonne Mitchell deciding to bite Petruchio in performance, in defiance of her role as “Kate the sensitive rather than Kate the curst.” All manifest the institutionally-enforced dissonance between the actress’s conception...